Coorong Environmental Trust Bill – Second Reading

Bills, In Parliament, Speeches

Introduction and First Reading 

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:57): Obtained leave and introduced a bill for an act to establish the Coorong Environmental Trust, to provide for the administration of the Trust, and for other purposes. Read a first time. 

Second Reading 

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:58): I move: 

That this bill be now read a second time. 

I stand here today to introduce a bill that would be an important next step towards restoring the health of the Coorong and the Lower Lakes. I have had the privilege of meeting many members of the community over the past year or so as we have worked together towards the creation of a bill for a Coorong environmental trust. I want to thank all of those people who have shared their time, their knowledge, their expertise and their insights with me. Their experience and expertise show most clearly how and why this trust has the potential to be so important in restoring the local environment in this very special area, and restoring the health of the Murray River more broadly. 

In particular, I would like to thank Faith Coleman and Ken Sawyers, whose guidance, feedback, wisdom and vision have made the bill what it is. The bill will establish the Coorong environmental trust. That trust will consist of members representing organisations with a professional, financial, physical or legal commitment to the ecological wellbeing of the Coorong. It will be an independent trust that operates outside government to manage the Coorong Ramsar site. We want this trust to be independent from the state government whilst still affording the state government the opportunity to use the information and reports from the trust to inform decision-making. 

The trust will empower the local and scientific community to manage the Lower Lakes and Coorong in the way that they know and can demonstrate is best, taking some of the politics out of the management of the waterway for the benefit of the local community and, of course, for the environment. 

In particular, we have taken out any elements of the trust that would take on or take over any work that is done by government or public sector employees in government departments, as the trust is not set up on the premise of necessarily receiving government funding. As a key element of this trust, we do not want it doing government work that it does not receive funding to do. There is no need for that. 

The Coorong needs a trust which is inclusive, independent and creates a unified voice of community members, stakeholders and science, which will aid the government of the day to make well-considered decisions. 

This independent and non-partisan advice cannot be provided by a ministerial controlled or appointed board. We have seen how inter- and intra-governmental disagreement, mismanagement and misinformation has impacted the river. This trust would be one that brings everyone together and puts the politics aside and just gets on with the job—that important job being done, as was so aptly put to me at the launch this past weekend, by the very folk who have the mud on their waders (that mud being Coorong mud). 

The objective of the trust is to drive the restoration of flows and ecological stability within the lakes and Coorong, with a strong focus on the Ramsar principle of sustainable use. This model is not unprecedented. It is a tried and trusted method for dealing with the complex and challenging nature of managing an estuary. It is also one where we can look to the Peel-Harvey Catchment Council, the Derwent Estuary Program, the Environmental Water Trust, the Estuary Care Foundation SA and the Avon-Heathcote Estuary Ihutai Trust, for examples. 

One of the key elements of this trust that I am proposing in this bill is its dual layer governance structure, which is key to the trust achieving its objective of separating science-based, factual, ecological understandings and discussions around the Coorong, from the politics of the river and the Coorong, which it always seems to be ensnared in. 

That structure will allow everyone to have equal input, encourage non-government parties to feel, and indeed to have, a sense of ownership and, most important, it will help ensure a democratic system for listening to those impacted by any activities within the Coorong, reducing the risk of a single interest group dominating the work of that trust at the expense of the others. 

What is special about setting up a trust in this way as well, rather than creating a private trust, is that the parliament will be required to note the reports of the Coorong Environmental Trust. In doing so, this parliament will show our respect for the work of that trust. 

It also makes it clear that government stakeholders have the option to support the trust and would be very encouraged to do so and, of course, consider its advice on relevant legislation or regulations. 

The functions and the powers of the trust will be as follows: 

to create and maintain a repository for all environmental data and research outcomes relating to the Coorong; 

to prepare an annual ‘State of Our Estuary’ report, along with presenting an opportunity for community, policy writers and researchers to discuss outcomes; 

to prepare, adopt and maintain a set of rules relating to the membership, management and operations of the trust; 

to provide independent and impartial scientific advice on the state of the Coorong for all stakeholders; 

to provide guidance for future environmental research within the Coorong; 

to clearly monitor and document environmental flow outcomes; 

to coordinate and, if necessary, implement a comprehensive water quality monitoring program; 

to dependently assess proposed solutions to the ecological challenges that are faced by the Coorong; 

to raise money so that it can carry out its functions with financial independence; and 

to perform any function assigned to the trust by regulation. 

What this all means for the community here is that we could see an exciting and, most importantly, necessary range of projects and research in the Coorong that are vital to restoring its health. That could include: 

re-funding community information sharing, coordination and citizen science programs; 

expanded water quality monitoring in the Coorong; 

long-nosed fur seal monitoring, impact assessment and management trials; 

clearly identified environmental costs and benefits of all proposed water infrastructure to be made possible; and 

on the ground application of findings. 

Ultimately, what this trust will mean is that we are getting back to the science. We are putting science back at the centre of decision-making, and we are putting local communities and stakeholders, those who are most intimately familiar with the Coorong, back in charge of its management. 

It was a unique privilege to launch this bill and to stand with others on the Goolwa Wharf last Saturday announcing today’s introduction of this legislation. I think it was special because it was the culmination of so many years of work from that local community to bring this idea together, to get a bill drafted and to try to make this trust a reality. 

It was particularly special because it had all the colours of the South Australian parliament rainbow. There was blue, red, green and orange: the minister, David Speirs; the shadow minister, Susan Close; the federal member for Mayo and Centre Alliance MP, Rebekha Sharkie representing SA-Best and the Hon. Connie Bonaros in her absence; the Mayor of Alexandrina Council; the Wilderness Society’s Peter Owen; the Conservation Council of South Australia’s Craig Wilkins, along with so many from the local community. 

We had professional fishers, we had irrigators, we had farmers, we had ecologists, we had scientists, we had environmentalists, and we all stood on that Goolwa Wharf together on that very rainy and windy Saturday morning. There was meant to be the launch that morning of the Dire Straits Tinny Tour. Unfortunately, due to the weather that had to be cancelled and postponed, and I understand that the Minister for Environment and Water will indeed launch that tinny tour at a later date. I am sure that we would all agree that we were happy to brave the cold and the wind that day to see that weather and that rain coming in. 

In his absence, I note also that Ngarrindjeri elder Grant Rigney passed on his support. He was unable to be there on the morning due to another commitment, but he was there in spirit and the spirit was strong that morning. It was the spirit of Storm Boy, the story that we all in this parliament know so well, of this iconic place in South Australia. That boy in the storm would not so often be in those storms in this day and age. It is a very special place. 

I want to pay tribute to the particular work of the Colemans. I have mentioned Faith Coleman, who joined us in the gallery today, but Nanny Peri and her commitment to both science and the environment should be honoured. Nanny Peri was trying to assist me with some insights into the beautiful treasure that we have that is our Coorong. Her grandsons suggested she might come up with a haiku. Nanny Peri’s effort included ‘sparkles and splashes’ and ‘bioluminescent glow’ with ‘pelicans landing’. Her grandsons were more to the point with ‘fish slime’ and ‘seal dung’. 

I think all in this place, however, would agree that all are things of beauty, and all of those elements of the Coorong are worth protecting and preserving. I hope we will stand with that local community ,across not just the political colours of the rainbow but the divides that often happen within these rural communities, and support the trust. 

It is my intention that this bill go to a select committee, and I am certainly in consultation with government, opposition and crossbenchers about the best select committee for it to be referred to, but I would hope that this will be the year that we will see a united political front to protect and preserve the Coorong, to put aside the politics and to put that community and the environment first. With those few words, I recommend the bill to the council. 

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. T.J. Stephens.